Interview with Sting: "We have to wake up and see what’s happening"

Sting is one of the world’s most distinctive and influential musicians and has been involved in social issues such as climate change and human rights for a long time. He recently released an album, "My songs," with his most celebrated hits, each reshaped and reimagined for 2019.

He recently sat down with NHK’s General Bureau for America correspondent Junya Yabuuchi to talk about the new album and ways to tackle the problems we face.

First of all, let me ask you about your new album. It includes songs released throughout your career that you re-recorded. Why did you make this album?

I think sometimes people have the strange idea that once music is recorded, it should never be touched again, like it's some kind of holy relic or a museum artifact. I don't have that belief because technology changes, because my voice has changed.

My voice is deeper and richer and has more texture because I have a different musical sensibility than I had 40 years ago -- not better, but different. I wanted just for fun to compare a record made now with contemporary sounds with the old words and I'm not saying it's better or worse -- I'm just saying it's fun to listen and compare and see the differences.

Some of the differences are very profound. Some of the differences are very subtle. But as an artist, you know when somebody paints, sometimes they paint the same subject many times the same is true of musicians. We can interpret the same song in many different periods. So this is a contemporary record.

The title of your new album is so simple -- "My Songs."

My thought is pretty simple. I mean, it's the thing that defines them. There were songs I wrote when I was a member of the Police, songs I wrote when I was a solo artist. And so that was the definition -- that these are just my songs and I'm proud of them. They're like my children and I like to see them evolve. I like to see them grow because every night, when I sing them on stage, I'm always looking for something different. I'm always looking for a little change that keeps my interest, so we rediscover the song every night. So this album should reflect that voyage, that quest for discovery.

I think your songs have shaped the times. Listeners including myself have special feelings toward these songs. Personally, "Shape of My Heart" and "Englishman in New York" have shaped parts of myself. Among all the songs you have written during your career, which one do you want the listeners or general public to listen to?

Well it's interesting that you say that the songs have a special meaning for you, and that's true of a lot of people. Some of the most interesting comments I got from people are, "I fell in love with your song playing," or "I got married with your song," or "I buried my grandfather with you."

This is an unexpected quality that songs can have because you realize you are creating this landscape of emotional memory for people. So when they hear a song, they remember something in their lives. I have those memories, but they're not the same as the listener. It's very interesting and very unexpected. So when you asked me to choose one song of over a hundred, I don't need to do that. That's not really my job.

"My songs" features Sting's most celebrated hits, each reshaped and reimagined for 2019.

I know you have been writing songs and influencing the world almost 40 years. How are you looking at the current situation of the world?

Current political climate?

I mean everything including political issues.

I think everything is political. I think we're in a great deal of trouble at the moment. I don't think we have the leadership in the world that is able to deal with the real profound crisis that we're in.

I'm talking about climate change. Until our leaders accept that this is something we need to put our ingenuity and energy money and our political will behind, we are heading in the wrong direction.

The ship is going off the cliff. That's of concern to me. And so I think art should reflect that concern in a way. My political views are very clear. We need better leadership. The climate crisis, the immigration crisis -- all things that affect life -- we're in danger.

You have been vocal on social issues. As you mentioned, climate change and environmental issues -- as well as your opposition to dictators of the world.
It encourages all the people. And the message is clear that violence cannot solve the problems we face.

I think all the problems we face as a human society are about a lack of consciousness. Most of us, me included, are asleep most of the time. What is then, this place where we don't take reality seriously. We have to wake up. I'm speaking to myself, too. All of us have to wake up and that waking up will be reflected in the latest vote for decisions that are made by those political leaders. We have to wake up. If we continue to be asleep, it'll be too late.

What is the issue you care most about?

I think consciousness, but you know, all of us need to wake up. It's fundamental.

Wake up for what?

Wake up and smell the coffee and see what's happening. You wake up to democracy. It's in danger.

So you think we are in a dangerous situation in terms of democracy?

I think you know the oldest democracy parliament in the world. The one in Great Britain is under serious threat now because of Brexit. We're spending so much energy on whether we're going to leave this trading block or whether we're going to stay. We're not dealing with the real issue of climate change and helping people who are emigrating from danger. We're dealing with nonsense -- uncoupling ourselves from the largest trading block in the world. For what? It's very odd. I voted to remain. I’m a remain voter.

And you have been living in New York.

I spent a lot of time in New York. I live in the world. I'm traveling all of the time. I got back from Paris on Friday. I'm heading back to London next week. I never stop traveling, but I spend a lot of time here.

So you've seen the world situation. Maybe you witnessed Brexit and maybe you saw the Trump administration and so on. What message do you want to convey to the world?

I think I believe in democracy. I think everyone should vote. And if you don't vote then you get the government you deserve. So everyone should vote. Most people don't know in this society, here in Britain, it's a minority of people who vote. So I think we'll get a better result when more people vote. When people are better informed, this is another issue. The Internet is not necessarily a good thing. There's just a lot of information there but none of it is verified. So you have to be careful. We need people to be educated more than anything.

You mentioned the Internet and social media --especially on how people spend so much time on social media and they just listen to what they want to hear.

That's true. It's very easy to get trapped in an echo chamber of your own views. And so you only hear things that will corroborate what you already believe. There is no challenge to those beliefs. So I think it's important to look outside of your little cult I'm speaking about. Me too, I do the same thing. So the Internet is dangerous. We need to monitor our use of it and be conscious of it.

Do you think music can be the tool to unite people, to make a common ground?

I'm not for people asking me to make a very grand statement about music. Music can make sense of a lot of emotional issues or political issues in some way but I'm not sure it is so powerful that it can change the world overnight with one song.

I think as a songwriter, you can plant the seed in someone's mind and that person may become part of the political class or influential class that can change the world later, perhaps.

But there's no guarantee of that. My responsibility is, to myself and my community as a songwriter, to just to tell the truth. That's my responsibility. The truth.

What is the truth?

The truth really is about treating other people the way you want to be treated. If you're in a situation, how would you want other people to treat you? Then that's how you behave. Everything else is just court commentary. This is a fundamental truth. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.

You wrote "Englishman in New York" 30 years ago. And in that song, you wrote "legal alien" to describe yourself. Do you still feel like that?

New York is a very interesting place. It's full of aliens or so-called aliens, not from Mars but the immigrants. The city was built by immigrants. They are the engine of the energy in the city. And so I'm very proud to be part of that. People come from all over the world.

They come from Japan to live here, from Great Britain, from South America, from Africa, and they bring a gift to the society and the gift is the difference. So as soon as we stop welcoming people who are different to us, then we die. So I'm a great believer in immigration. I think it helps to recreate society it makes it fresh and new and exciting. We've been doing it for thousands and thousands of years. My people came from the north of Europe and they immigrated to Great Britain. People came from the mainland of Asia and people have been moving the whole time.

Some leaders tried to stop immigration.

Well the forces that are driving migration are very profound. They are climate change. They are war. Violence of wars, all of them are being driven by the West. They're using our weapons in these wars. Climate change is driven by our industries, our creation of CO2 in the atmosphere. So we are responsible and we need to take responsibility for our part in this drama. We can't say it has nothing to do with us. It's got everything to do with everything us.

Since we are a Japanese media company, I'd like to ask whether you have any comments for Japanese fans and audiences?

Well I'm very, very fond of Japan and the Japanese people and I've always been treated very kindly when I come. I look forward to coming back. I'm not sure when that could be, but the Japanese audience listens very carefully to what you're singing. And that's important to me. So yes, I care about Japan.

Japan is searching for its own identity because the society is aging very fast and the economy is declining. We are not the economic power we used to be.

I know, it's a concern. Everyone has a feeling that their identity is threatened. But that's not really the true, super identity as human beings. We are part of a human family. And if society gets old, there are solutions to that. You have to welcome other people. So your identity is bigger. This is the way I feel.

This interview was conducted on April 15th, 2019 in Manhattan, New York. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.